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Vasil Bykaŭ. The Wall: 3 short stories that I translated

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Школа кожевенного мастерства: сумки, ремни своими руками
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  • Аннотация:
    Известный белорусский (и советский) писатель Василь Быков в поздние годы своего творчества написал сборник коротких рассказов "Стена". Далее предлагается перевод трех рассказов из этого цикла на английском языке. Vasil Bykau was a famous Belarussian writer, known in other parts of the former USSR. In his late years, the author wrote a set of stories named "The Wall". Three of them are translated hereinafter into English

   Vasil Bykaŭ (1924-2003) is not unknown for English speaking readers. I have read myself one English translation of his novel, published as Vasil Bykov "A Portent of Disaster", I am sure it's not the only work of this Belarussian writer available for those who can't read in Belarussian but still enjoy reading books in English.
   Vasil Bykaŭ took part in the Wolrd War II and after the War he became a writer. Belarus then was a part of the USSR and any writers had to observe certain rules to be pulished and to get money from the government. That's why the early Bykaŭ couldn't write everything he knew about the War. All his life he was interested in the psychology of man's behavior under extreme circumstances. He was free to write the bitter truth of war crimes committed by Germans in the USSR and local Polizei, but the Soviet censorship left no place for any wrong conduct of the Red Army soldiers. And Bykaŭ was critisized for any slightest attempts to describe the war reality that included betrayals, robbing and cruelty from both the fighting sides. The period of democratization in the Soviet Union, called Glasnost (do not think that Perestroyka was a liberalization course as such, for it was only an attempt of slight economic transformations having nothing to do about democracy and it was Glasnost, proclaimed in 1988, that allowed peaceful protests against violations of rights and freedoms and crtisizing the government that along with the economic stagnation led the USSR to its collapse in 1991) pushed Bykaŭ to write about Stalin's repressions as well. When Belarus became an independent nation in 1991 he had already become an anti-Communist and a moderate Belarussian nationalist. (One can read also his biography in Wikipedia).
   That later Bykaŭ wrote a series of short stories called The Wall, where he tried to describe the cruelties of the Soviet system both during the War and in other periods of USSR history. As a historian I can't help seeing that he exagerated certain thing, but after reading dozens of Belarussian books I shall admit that those stories make part of the best masterpieces of the world literature by the manner of the description of human behavior in difficult times.
   So, I've chosen and translated 3 short stories and I think my readers have the right to know about some translation features. Firstly, there's no translation that can perfectly reflect the original work. With Belarussian as my second language and English as my third one I only tried to render these works as best as I could. Secondly, there exist a problem of the proper romanisation of Russian and Belarussian names. That why this writer is known ouside Belarus not only as Bykaŭ, but also Bykov and Bykaw. I've decided to render Belarussian names according to the modern rules for the romanization of Belarussian characters (story one) and other Slavonic names ouside Belarus as Russian names (some changes in vowels and consonants) for it Belarussian the name of some Russian president will sound like Putsin, Myadzvedzeu and yet they are known worldwide as Putin and Medvedev. Thirdly, in the story that I called The Fog of a Wrong Belief (story one)I dared to translate the name of main character literally -- Badger (in Belarussian -- Barsuk), for the author himself had written that it was unnkown if it was his real last name or just a nick, which was not uncommon in those years. Fourthly, I'm absolutely sure that the real name the Commander from story two is Marshal Zhukov, which was believed to be responsible for the defeat of the German Army in Stalingrad (now Volgograd) making them shift additional tanks from Africa without even changing their yellowish color. And Zhukov really executed many soldiers and officers without any trial or any real fault just to keep some discipline. Fifthly, the last story seems to have happened to the narator himself.
   Enjoy your reading
   Andrei Berastoŭski, the translator
  (the link for the original text: http://knihi.com/Vasil_Bykau/Sciana.html#chapter5)
  It was their celebration and they were going with flowers and flags to their stone-stiff leader. Some music was being played. The pipes were shining, the granite of the monument was shining too due to the rain, the urban surrounding was reflected on the wet road pavement. All of them were without hats or caps, gray-haired, bold, with aigrette-like wet hair, the eyes of their old faces showed suffering and severity. One of them was carrying a small basket of begonias, keeping it carefully with both hands; a stick was hanging on his bent arm. Unlike other old ones he had a great white beard almost like a Santa, that beard hung to his weak tired chest. As he approached the pedestal with the others he bent down awkwardly and put his basket on the ground, then he straightened his back and clumsily, as if being embarrassed, made the sign of the cross.
   - Look, it's Badger! - almost with some excitement Vinceś plucked his friend by the sleeve. - Yet alive, lo...
  Yes, it was Badger, alive and seemingly in good health, the man whom Liaksei and Vinceś remembered since the War, as they had lived in the town where this old deaf-and-dump man called Badger used to live during the War.
   - And he seems to be the same, - Vinceś couldn't help talking.
  It is amazing however that he didn't change. Is his life or his character the reason of it? Or may be the wrong belief that is like thick fog that some circumstances keep tight from clearing away. Such as those of the Badger.
  He came to that town with many other refugees. When the War began lots of civilians from the western parts of Belarus rushed eastwards together with the defeated troops. Some went by military vehicles others by carts but most of them went on foot with their sacks, cases and children. Badger escaped from the hell of the battered area alone. All his family members had got lost somewhere and so he settled in the town waiting for them. Perhaps, he thought it was for just a while but he stayed there all the years of German invasion. He lived at an old lady's near the ditch and earned his living by all possible means: digging vegetable beds, cutting wood, and sometimes bootmaking. He ate what he was given, often went hungry and he was said to be waiting for his wife and two kids. Time passed but Badger's family didn't show up. At times he felt terrible but he didn't go to the forest. And what kind of partisan he could be - deaf and mute? Nevertheless his young neighbor Valera (that was said to have something about the forest and was often absent in the town for a week or two and then reappeared there with no fuss) visited him sometimes. He needed Badger to have his boots repaired or his loot watch fixed since Badger knew what to do with the watch.
  Once this Valera came with an unknown guy, a trooper sergeant. They had a mission: to try food cards. Yes, ordinary food rationing cards on cereals, flour, salt, etc. issued for German establishments employees that they managed to fake in the forest. Or, may be, in a town print house? So, those cards were fake. Of course, Valera could have sent his sister Ninka or his auntie Hanulia, but he felt sorry for them. And in the evening he and his partner dropped at Badger's.
  Just that week Badger was without work and food and was finishing his last pot of potatoes that he had earned by repairing his neighbors' chimney; he had run out of salt long before. And suddenly two forest guests, partisans, ask him cordially "How are you?" Sympathize him and give him lots of cards. Go to the shop, fetch some stuffs for yourself and for us. We don't need much, mostly cigarettes, the rest you can keep to yourself. We are not greedy people, we are Soviet partisans...
  Badger couldn't believe that - what a luxury! And what nice guys, so compassionate to a poor disabled percher! That week Polizei robbed him of the excellent boots he wanted to exchange for bread. And also gave him a good kick in the pants. These ones, lo, give him cards for free: margarine, salt, flour...
  No, he wasn't going, he was flying to the shop with the cards and got everything there. Just the same way he speeded home where got slightly embarrassed for the boys had gone for unknown reasons. They reappeared only at night and inquire some details of the shopping. Then they gave more cards, which was a terrific support for the hungry Badger.
  After the War Badger sometimes met the grown-up Valera and kissed his hands every time: what a nice partisan. What a support for the old one! Especially when he gave Badger a paper as a witness of his position of a communication agent of special partisan band "Granite". That very paper injected some spirit to Badger to keep living after the loss of his family. He retired soon, in fact, after having done different jobs at the local consumer service establishment where he had been event promoted to the position of a headman. Recently he felt a great pity because of the collapse of the USSR. Especially when he learned that Valera, a big boss now, works outside Belarus and is unlikely to come to the revolutionary celebration. And all because of those borders, customs and broken economic relations. Valera was still remembered here since the War and most often by 90-year old Badger with some warmth in his senile eyes. He was really sure that Valera didn't betray the great work of Marx, Engels and Lenin. And Stalin too. Badger didn't want to betray as well for betraying is always bad. When he got a call from the Veterans administration to take part in the laying of flowers to the leader's monument he did come. And brought his last basket of begonias for t'was a must to pay his tribute to the leader and to the leader's work, to Valera and to that sergeant, those two guys that honored a lonely humiliated dumb one.
  Nevertheless, after the War many people got to know that story of Badger.
  But it was only Badger himself who didn't know the truth. Was it really worth telling him? Would he believe it?
  Let him live in the fog of his wrong belief the rest of his life and bring flower baskets to the monument. Moreover, now it is not forbidden to make the sign of the cross openly and even with some affection...
  (the link for the original text: http://knihi.com/Vasil_Bykau/Sciana.html#chapter9)
  As you know, one piece of bad news comes upon the back of another. That another reached the Commander on his way to Melnikov's dominion. That Melnikov didn't have the things right from the very beginning, the troops couldn't move forwards from the Dnieper's bank, the neighboring troops made a breakthrough and captured the very city on the right for which the Commander received congratulations from the Commander-In-Chief. But hardly the Commander left the village when the command center reported on the radio: a problem on the right flank, the Germans had a counter-attack in force and flung the infantry back over the river. The Commander had a look into his map and ordered to turn to the lateral route to go to the right flank. On hearing the new command, his two adjutants, young handsome colonels passed it to the other vehicles - an armored carrier with the guard and a closed truck with the court martial - those ones that accompanied the Commander everywhere. The whole small convoy began to move speedily on a bumpy, narrow and muddy byroad. Everyone was silent in the Willys. The Commander kept silence, his square chin shut, the adjutants kept silent too apprehending what they are going to see. It is possible that the Commander will quickly get right into the hell of the battle and, with his iron fist... They had had enough opportunities to see that his fist was really iron...
  Bumping on potholes, picking up the speed on even surfaces and rolling over small hills covered with some low forest, the Willys, the carrier and the truck went to the hub of the earthquake of the battle, and even the constant noise of their motors couldn't stifle the battle sound, soon the thunder of the battle was heard nearby somewhere behind the forest where, according to the Commander's map on could find a narrow tortuous river along a wide water-meadow. Who would guess that German tanks will attack right here? - thought the Commander. Were the missing anything on a smooth surface? Or have they learned from us our Asian quickwittedness? Well they hit right here to this troublesome for attackers place. And, unfortunately, the defense right here, in this spot, happened to be a kinda weak, just yesterday Cheremysin's brigade was sent to the center to help the forwarding group; and only one antitank regiment was left here, no, even a bit right from here, I guess. So, the infantry had a hell-hard time with no support and it yielded. That's its destiny in any war and in any army.
  The Willys jumped to a sandy hill with some young and tiny pine trees and immediately dashed aside crashing those trees with a cracking sound. The Commander not expecting the maneuver, swore as he just managed to grasp the metal rail in front of himself with his gloved hand. However, he got that it had been done well and it was no reason to swear. The pine forest was being stung with gun bursts, one should roll back or jump out and lie down. And the Commander did jump out. Waited a while and bending down ran upwards and laid down on dry heathery ground. In front of him there was a wide panoramic sight of the water-meadow with a shameful spectacle of a panic skedaddle. Oh, how many times the Commander had seen this shame but never he could get used to it and with no hesitation resorted to a reliable solution. The people overcome with fear could be driven only with a more tremendous fear that a boss had in store. Our infantry were running away to the river, climbing over its banks, some soldiers were really not far from the hill on this side of the river. On the river bank among willowbushing a lopsided Studebaker was in flames and smoke clouds, some people were moving chaotically over there. Another one, however, got out of the sludge and having a cannon attached crawled slowly to the hill. On the running board of the vehicle there stood a man in a military shirt but without any overcoat, his head bandaged. Isn't he the commander of an antitank battery? - thought the Commander. The man was shouting something, perhaps to show the direction to the driver. From behind the river tracer bullets were dashing here and there and ricocheting were flying everywhere like fire bees. The Commander, without looking back ordered his guard: "Get hold of 'em!", and some soldiers led by a staff sergeant rushed through the forest down the hill.
  While they were stopping the infantry with their strained voice the Commander was peering through the meadow and further at the other side of the river where light-yellow German tanks began to appear. The Commander had already met with them and knew it was he himself who had made German commanders move them here from Africa by decisive attacks of his troops, for they were colored to fight in a desert. But they met no deserts here, mostly swamps. Now and again they shelled this side of the river and the infantry with their cannons. The shelling made the hill quake...
  Next to the Commander and especially behind him there were about ten people of the guard with alert faces, a bit further downwards the chairman of the court martial was stretching himself near a pine tree, he was a major, a man-of-war, all around girded with belts, with a service cap on his head. Behind the major his secretary, a young man wrapped in a cape was opening his bag. The man was looking at the Commander, his fingers were trembling and he couldn't open the bag quickly. They were waiting. It wasn't their first time they went with the Commander, so, they knew what to do very well. Moreover, they did their work risking their own lives. Two bursts nearby in the forest made them press their heads to the ground, but the Commander payed no attention to the explosions. He was watching things happening on the meadow.
  It looked like the guard got hold of the first runners and soon led from the forest two frightened breathless infantrymen with long three-line rifles with attached bayonets. Having escaped somehow from the fire and German tanks they seemed not to understand what was going on and what that officer with a strict face needed them for. "Why did you run? - the Commander snapped while examining them both with his eyes - a tall one and a short, almost gnome-sized, soldier, both in muddy rugs. - Why did you run?" the foot soldiers were breathing hard and keeping silence, and the Commander waved his hand, not so to them as to some of his guard: "Surrender you arms!"
  It must have been a certain signal, for two guys in reefing-jackets of the guard staff pulled the riffles of the soldiers and violently pushed them both. The short fell down at once, murmuring something, the tall began repeating senselessly: "What, what?" With this "what" they were pushed away to the forest, away from the sight of the Commander and they never returned.
  Meanwhile the staff sergeant brought the officer from the Studebaker to the Commander. Wounded, with his head in bandage, trying to save the cannon to his own cost, the officer crossed the river to the life-saving, as it seemed to him, hill. He was a senior lieutenant with the Order of the Great Patriotic War on his chest, he was girded with a twisted belt, where a definitely empty holster was dangling. On seeing the Commander he tried to report:
   - Comrade commander...
  The Commander cut him short with the voice tone that could make speechless not only battery commanders but some officers of higher ranks:
   - Where's the battery?
   - They are dead, comrade com...
   - Oh, are they? - the Commander got totally enraged. - And why didn't you, bastard, die?
   - Well, I...
   - Documents!
  With his hands, dirty from sludge and fresh blood, the senior lieutenant undid a button of his jacket a got out some papers - an officer's ID, a Communist Party card, a posessions accounting document. The staff sergeant snatched them immediately and passed to the members of the court martial.
   - Shoot him! - the Commander cut it off coldly.
   - Comrade commander!.. - the officer shouted huskily and stopped - the Commander was already looking around the meadow and the staff sergeant was bearing arms against his chest, it was a new blue-finished machine pistol of Sudayev with a banana magazine, this type had just arrived to the front line, and these pistols were given first of all to the Commander's guard. The staff sergeant took the battery commander to the forest and soon a quiet single shot was heard.
  The chairman of the court martial and his secretary were forming the judicial act frantically quickly. The general information had been written beforehand and so they needed only to add names and to fit some other details. Still lying, the major leaned closer to the secretary and the latter read to him: "The court martial of the troop unit number... in an open hearing examined the case against... What's his name?"
   - Senior lieutenant Bezuglov, - said the major after looking into the ID. - And also privates Andreyev and Tyavelko...
   - Andreyev and Tyavelko, - repeated the secretary on writing. - And sentenced the mentioned ones to...
   - The capital punishment, - helped the major.
   - The sentence... - said the secretary.
   - ... Is executed, - helped the major looking around anxiously. He seemed to be hurrying up: if the job is done or not. Moreover, the German tanks must have come to the river - it was quaking too hard beneath the hill. At the same time an explosion thundered pretty close - sand and dust showered upon the heath and the trees, the Commander's cap and his shoulders as well as the court's papers which the secretary had failed to hide. The Commander shook off the sand with a vivid motion and stood up.
   - Hey, are you ready there?
   - Yes, sir! - the major stood up quickly.
   - All aboard! - ordered the Commander and hurried himself to his Willys. The court members and the guard got up immediately after him and rushed from the forest to the road.
  What remained after them was just the heather dusted with sand and two thrown rifles with bayonets. Far away through the young pine tree one could see something white - may be the bandage on the bleeding head of the unlucky battery commander. From the meadow one would hear the concert of shooting, perhaps, some sort of defense was being organized somehow.
  The Commander really brought discipline - the German tanks did not pass there.
  (the link for the original text: http://knihi.com/Vasil_Bykau/Sciana.html#chapter10)
  There happen in the life things which significance is revealed only after many years and is meditated upon all the lifetime. Some other things at first seem to be important, but soon lose their importance; certain ones get this importance in years. And there are some few that are constant in their imperative significance. About one such event I'd like to tell you, and, by the way, it's been more than half a century since it took place.
  It happened during the last War in the winter of 1944 in Ukraine.
  During the hard battles with the German Army our division got into a difficult situation, the German troops executed a counter-attack, occupied some villages in the rear. So, there was the danger of being surrounded, which was one of the greatest dangers of that war. My leg was wounded and I couldn't walk. At night some of us, the wounded ones, they tried to move away upon the outer plates of tanks, but the way to the rear was blocked. In a certain village all the wounded were taken from the tanks and carried to houses. The tanks went further. To make a breakthrough.
  We were left alone, without any protection, in uncertain conditions.
  Suffering from cold weather and pain I climbed somehow on a shaky bed where somebody was already lying. My hands felt something wet by my side, but I paid no attention to it and fell asleep soon. It seemed just when I fell asleep I woke up being moved by a sudden terror. It was getting light outside, it was already morning, shots could be heard from somewhere, even screaming, someone ran away in panic by the window. I raised my head and for the first time looked at the one I had spent the night with. And even gave a start: it was a German officer. But he wasn't moving, his uniform overcoat fringe was mucked with blood, he must have died at night before my arrival. Nobody was there in the house, all the wounded had run away. A cart move was heard outside followed by tracer bullets bursts in the air. From the other end of the village the Germans were getting into it.
  It was dangerous to stay in the house I had to move away, but, however, I couldn't go really far. Clinging to walls and benches I limped to the lobby. It was rather dark over there, in one corner there were some cut planks of wood, in another one, right by the entrance door there was a self-made wooden section, its height being up to one's kneels, full of potatoes. I got my pistol out of its holster and lied down on the potatoes. Through a split in the door I could see some of the yard and the gate of the house. The street of the village was desert, far away at the end of the village one could hear shootings, so our guys have sneaked away, - I thought. Soon the Germans must come here.
  Meanwhile the day was breaking and it was already a sunny frosty morning. The sun rose over the roofs and its rays lit the yard. I was lying with a pistol in my hand and waiting. But what I was waiting for and what I could feel reliance in? Perhaps, my death? For hoping to defend my life with just eight bullets was in vain. And I got ready to die. I just was waiting, that's all.
  All in all, I didn't have to wait for very long. Through the split I saw a group of German soldiers running and shooting their rifles now and again somewhere. Then another group appeared. Those ones were walking slower and were not shooting. And just from that group one guy - a tall soldier in a short overcoat with a submachinegun on his chest headed to the yard and went right to the door. I cocked the hammer and pointed the pistol at the door. The German was going quickly, his eyes narrowed behind the glasses in a metallic rim. His chin was covered with dark scrub, there was a cold-weather cap on his head with its peak over his forehead. He threw the door open decisively with his hand and looked into my face right from the sunlit yard. My pistol was pointed to his chest, my finger was resting on the trigger. Any moment I was ready to shoot. But I didn't - something kept me from shooting him. It wasn't the feeling of danger, nor the natural instincts of self-preservation - somewhere inside my mind all my readiness had vanished. Again I was waiting. The German had to grasp his gun on his chest to shoot: but his right hand was resting on the door latch. Nothing changed in his look behind the glasses - neither surprise, nor fear, and, may be, that was the thing that had kept me from shooting. It seemed that being blinded by the bright morning sun he was unable to see me and I lacked the suicidal determination to pull the trigger. It all took just a second then somebody shouted outside - perhaps, the German was called. And, letting go the latch of the door he turned his back to me and hurried after his comrades. I gave the sigh of relief. Of course, it was not all over yet, but at least the first danger had gone away.
  At the end of the village they were fighting a heavy battle, I could see scattered groups of Germans appearing and disappearing now and again, but they didn't come into the yard any more. Then the Germans disappeared at all, the village was taken by the Red Army soldiers. In the afternoon I was sent to hospital.
   All the war years I told nobody about that anecdote: it was dangerous to reveal things like that, - but I couldn't help thinking of it. By all, it was an unusual story: on meeting each other armed soldiers of the warring armies spared each other's life. No matter that unwillingly. For If I'd shot the German then, I'd have been definitely killed too. May be, it was the Almighty God who gave us both a second life. And, lo, I'm alive yet.
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